JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we continue our series Inside Putin’s Russia.
There may be no more consequential relationship for the United States than with Russia. Both nations possess world-ending capacity, and may be at the most critical moment since the end of the Cold War.
Tonight, we explore the bilateral relationship, the tension and how Russians see the United States.
Again in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Nick Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin start their report in Moscow on Victory Day.
NICK SCHIFRIN: On Russia’s most patriotic holiday, Russians of all ages remember what they consider their finest moment. They mark the anniversary of victory in World War II by honoring the dead.
Kiriginov Naimovich’s grandfather fought the Nazis. He says Russia and the U.S. were once allies, and should be again.
KIRIGINOV NAIMOVICH, Moscow Resident (through interpreter): We really want to love you and be friends with you. We are waiting for you to finally meet us halfway.
NICK SCHIFRIN: For Russians, it’s the U.S. who’s unwilling to come halfway. Many here believe President Trump wants to improve things, but is being blocked by what Dimitry Schyukin calls the American establishment.
DIMITRY SCHYUKIN, Moscow Resident (through interpreter): Trump wants to do something, but he’s forced to follow the general political line.
ALEXANDER DUGIN, TV Host: Donald Trump is the most right-wing candidate of the Republican Party.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Perhaps nobody expressed more hope in Trump than Alexander Dugin, a right-wing TV firebrand and philosopher who’s helped inspire the Kremlin’s ideology.
ALEXANDER DUGIN: Really, we supported Trumpism. We supported agenda.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Dugin says the Kremlin saw Trump as a kindred spirit who vowed not to meddle internationally.
ALEXANDER DUGIN: We supported this choice of anti-establishment conservative American revolution.
NICK SCHIFRIN: That changed when President Trump ordered a missile strike on Russia ally Syria, and said he felt must respond to a chemical weapons attack.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.
ALEXANDER DUGIN: We trusted not in Trump as pro-Russian figure. We trusted in Trump realist. And we are disappointed.
NICK SCHIFRIN: The disappointment and tensions have been growing. Last month, over the Baltic Sea, a Russian jet flew within five feet of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane. That same week, a NATO jet shadowed the Russian defense minister’s plane and a Russian jet came up and rocked its wings to demonstrate it was armed.
Last year, the Obama administration accused Russia of hacking the election, and then seized Russian properties and increased sanctions. All of that has led to Russian frustration.
Maria Zakharova is the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
MARIA ZAKHAROVA, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman: We were trying to establish normal relationship, normal. Do you know this word, normal relationship? What is wrong with this?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: President Putin and I have been discussing various things, and I think it’s going very well.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Last week, the U.S. took steps toward normalization. Presidents Trump and Putin announced a deal on Syria. Both presidents called their meeting the first step to warming the relationship.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): If we develop our relations in the same way, there is every reason to believe that we would be able to at least partially restore the level of interaction that we need.
NICK SCHIFRIN: The president echoed that hope. On Sunday, he tweeted he wouldn’t dwell on 2016 hacking, and wrote, “Now was the time to move forward in working constructively with Russia.”
This is not the language other Trump administration officials use about Russia on Syria.
NIKKI HALEY, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: How many more children have to die before Russia cares?
NICK SCHIFRIN: On Ukraine.
REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: We do call on Russia to exercise influence over the separatists in the region, whom they do hold complete control over.
NICK SCHIFRIN: And on Putin personally.
MIKE POMPEO, CIA Director: This is a man for whom veracity doesn’t translate into English.
NICK SCHIFRIN: The one senior administration official who’s declined to echo that criticism is Donald Trump, as candidate and president.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could actually get along with Russia? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I respect Putin. He is a strong leader, I can tell you that, unlike what we have. We have a pathetic leader.
QUESTION: Putin is a killer.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?
NICK SCHIFRIN: And last week in Warsaw, President Trump once again questioned the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russia hacked the 2016 election.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it was Russia. But I think it was probably other people and/or countries, and I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows.
SEN. MARK WARNER, D-Va.: At the very least, giving the president all the benefit of the doubt, this is very bizarre behavior.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Democratic Senator Mark Warner is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
SEN. MARK WARNER: We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but there’s clearly a lot of smoke.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Warner is helping lead the Senate’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia’s attempts to sway the election. We first interviewed him three weeks ago.
SEN. MARK WARNER: It is very strange that any presidential candidate, and in particular a Republican presidential candidate, would parrot so much of the Russian line.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Republican Senator James Lankford is also on the Intelligence Committee.
In some ways, has President Trump aligned himself with the ideals expressed by Russia?
SEN. JAMES LANKFORD, R-Okla.: Yes, he’s pushing out some messages that are consistent with the Kremlin policies. And I would tell you, at every opportunity that I have, I try to articulate very clearly there’s no question that the Russians were trying to hack into our elections, and there’s no question that we should have a strong NATO and that the United States should be a part of that NATO alliance.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Do you believe that he’s not echoing that because the Russians have compromising material on him?
SEN. MARK WARNER: I don’t know. I hope not. But the goal of this investigation is to not only reconfirm Russian intervention and explain that to the American public, but to also see if there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
NICK SCHIFRIN: And just this week, we learned that, last June, Donald Trump Jr. met with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, both believed to have ties to the Russian government.
I spoke to Senator Warner again last night.
SEN. MARK WARNER: This indication that they were willing to accept this information from Russians and it was part of an overall Russian government effort to help Trump and to hurt Clinton, I think this is the first time the American public has seen that in black and white.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Much of this town has been worried about Trump and Russia since he became president. Current administration officials tell NewsHour the White House drafted an executive order that would have lifted sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine.
Senior administration officials and the intelligence community successfully lobbied against it. And, this spring, senators passed a bill that would restrict the president’s ability to lift those sanctions. The bill’s not yet a law, but it was designed to be a nearly unanimous message to the president and to Putin.
SEN. JAMES LANKFORD: We believe strongly that what Russia continues to do to be able to threaten Ukraine, threaten its neighbors, threaten NATO, to continue to pry into not only our elections, but other elections, is destabilizing, and it demands a response.
They have yet to have a consequence to what they did in the election time. And they should.
NICK SCHIFRIN: In some ways, the president has fallen in line. On Sunday, he tweeted he wouldn’t lift sanctions on Russia over Ukraine until Ukrainian and Syrian problems are solved. And last week, he also endorsed Article 5, NATO’s collective defense.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The United States has demonstrated not merely with words, but with its actions, that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment.
NICK SCHIFRIN: That convinces many in Moscow that the U.S. establishment is making sure the U.S. remains anti-Russian.
Dmitri Trenin is a former Soviet army colonel who directs the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
DMITRI TRENIN, Carnegie Center Moscow: The United States has been, remains, and will be the power that defines common Western, i.e., U.S.-driven, foreign, defense and security policy.
NICK SCHIFRIN: And given that, Trenin says the U.S. remains Russia’s main adversary. And Russia is simply targeting the U.S. with whatever tool it can.
DMITRI TRENIN: I’m sure that the Russians have been looking at things, have been hacking things, have been using the material that they have hacked. Why are you surprised that you are being hacked? This is a method of espionage. This is what you do. If you can do it, do it. If you can protect against that, protect against it, but don’t whine.
NICK SCHIFRIN: But it goes one step further. Many in Russia look at Washington’s turbulence and see a U.S. they’d considered strong and unified suddenly weakened. And they’re exploiting that weakness in the U.S. foundation.
ALEXANDER DUGIN: It is not so coherent. It is not so stable. And it is vulnerable, I would say. And we seen that. We have seen what we needed to see, vulnerability of American society.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Nick now joins me in our studio.
So, Nick, that sounds pretty foreboding.
NICK SCHIFRIN: I think it should sound foreboding, because it is.
I think usual Russians really do see a vulnerability in the U.S. They see a lack of unity. And when talking frankly to people who actually know what they’re talking about in Russia, it’s not so much denial that they did it. It is that we did it in the United States last year, and we will keep doing it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, from talking to them, is there any doubt that they are going to keep on doing it?
NICK SCHIFRIN: No, I don’t think so, mostly because they don’t feel like they paid a price.
The Russian government doesn’t feel like the United States government really penalized them for what happened last year. And, frankly, a lot of American officials here in Washington agree with that. They fault the Obama administration and the Trump administration for simply not following through on some of the things that they feel like Russia should have paid for what they did last year.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you and I talked a little bit about this. You talked to so many experts. Is there hope? Is there a glimmer of a belief anywhere that this can be repaired?
NICK SCHIFRIN: There are analysts in Moscow who think the only thing we can hope is that we avoid war. I mean, there are some people who are that dire right now.
I think the people who are trying to make it better and hope it can make it better are doing what basically President Trump and Putin did earlier in that story we showed, trying to find a lowest common denominator, if you will, trying to find a corner of Syria, for example, where they can work together and use that very small deal to expand perhaps into greater Syria, to expand into a kind of warming of the relationship.
And certainly the people who understand that this relationship has to get better, that’s what they’re trying to do.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, looking for places to make that happen.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Absolutely.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Nick Schifrin, thank you.
It is a remarkable series. Thank you very much.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Thanks very much.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you call watch all of Nick’s reports from this week’s series on our Web site. That’s pbs.org/newshour.